You are here

Chapter 23

The selection of a servant--A Persian
diligence--Shah-Abdul-Azim mosque--Rock carving--The round
tower--Beggars--The Kerjawa--Hasanabad--Run-away
horses--Misplaced affection--Characteristics of the
country--Azizawad--Salt lake of Daria-i-Nimak--Aliabad--Sunsets.

I had much difficulty in obtaining a really first-class servant, although many applied with glowing certificates. It has always been my experience that the more glowing the certificates the worse the servant. For my particular kind of travelling, too, a special type of servant has to be got, with a constitution somewhat above the average. I generally cover very great distances at a high speed without the least inconvenience to myself, but I find that those who accompany me nearly always break down.

After inspecting a number of applicants I fixed upon one man whose features showed firmness of character and unusual determination. He was a man of few words--one of the rarest and best qualities in a travelling servant, and--he had no relations dependent upon him--the next best quality. He could shoot straight, he could stick on a saddle, he could walk. He required little sleep. He was willing to go to any country where I chose to take him. He required a high salary, but promised by all he held most sacred that he would die before he would give me the slightest trouble. This seemed all fair, and I employed him.

Only one drawback did this man have--he was an excellent European cook. I had to modify him into a good plain cook, and then he became perfection itself. His name was Sadek.

On October 2nd I was ready to start south. My foot was still in a bad condition, but I thought that the open air cure would be the best instead of lying in stuffy rooms. Riding is my favourite way of progression, but again it was necessary to submit to another extortion and travel by carriage as far as Kum on a road made by the Bank of Persia some few years ago. The speculation was not carried on sufficiently long to become a success, and the road was eventually sold to a Persian concern. The same company runs a service of carriages with relays of horses between the two places, and if one wishes to travel fast one is compelled to hire a carriage, the horses not being let out on hire for riding purposes at any of the stations.

This time I hired a large diligence--the only vehicle in the stables that seemed strong enough to stand the journey. It was painted bright yellow outside, had no windows, and was very properly divided into two compartments, one for men and one for women. The money for the journey had to be paid in advance, and the vehicle was ordered to be at the door of the hotel on Friday, October 4th, at 5.30 a.m.

It arrived on Sunday evening, October 6th, at 6.30 o'clock. So much for Persian punctuality. Sadek said I was lucky that it did come so soon; sometimes the carriages ordered come a week later than the appointed time; occasionally they do not come at all!

Sadek, much to his disgust, was made to occupy the ladies' compartment with all the luggage, and I had the men's. We were off, and left the city just in time before the South Gate was closed. There were high hills to the south-east, much broken and rugged, and to the north beyond the town the higher ones above Golahek, on which snow caps could be perceived. Damovend (18,600 ft.), the highest and most graceful mountain in Persia, stood with its white summit against the sky to the north-east.

Even two hundred yards away from the city gate there was nothing to tell us that we had come out of the capital of Persia--the place looks so insignificant from every side. A green-tiled dome of no impressive proportions, a minaret or two, and a few mud walls--that is all one sees of the mass of houses one leaves behind.

Barren country and dusty road, a graveyard with its prism-shaped graves half-buried in sand, are the attractions of the road. One comes to an avenue of trees. Poor trees! How baked and dried and smothered in dust! A couple of miles off, we reached a patch of verdure and some really green trees and even signs of agriculture. To our left (east) lay the narrow-gauge railway line--the only one in Persia--leading to the Shah-Abdul Azim mosque. The whole length of the railway is not more than six miles.

To the right of the road, some little distance before reaching the mosque, a very quaint, large high-relief has been sculptured on the face of a huge rock and is reflected upside down in a pond of water at its foot. Men were bathing here in long red or blue drawers, and hundreds of donkeys were conveying veiled women to this spot. An enormous tree casts its shadow over the pool of water in the forenoon.

It is interesting to climb up to the high-relief to examine the figures more closely. The whole sculpture is divided into three sections separated by columns, the central section being as large as the two side ones taken together. In the centre is Fath-ali-shah--legless apparently--but supposed to be seated on a throne. He wears a high cap with three aigrettes, and his moustache and beard are of abnormal length. In his belt at the pinched waist he disports a sword and dagger, while he holds a bâton in his hand. There are nine figures to his right in two rows: the Naib Sultaneh, Hussein Ali, Taghi Mirza, above; below, Mahommed, Ali Mirza, Fatali Mirza, Abdullah Mirza, Bachme Mirza, one figure unidentified. To the Shah's left the figures of Ali-naghi Mirza and Veri Mirza are in the lower row; Malek Mirza, the last figure to the left, Hedar Mirza and Moh-Allah-Mirza next to Fath-Ali-Shah. All the figures are long-bearded and garbed in long gowns, with swords and daggers. On Fath-Ali-Shah's right hand is perched a hawk, and behind his throne stands an attendant with a sunshade, while under the seat are little figures of Muchul Mirza and Kameran Mirza. There are inscriptions on the three sides of the frame, but not on the base. A seat is carved in the rock by the side of the sculpture.

A few hundred yards from this well-preserved rock carving, a round tower 90 or 100 feet in height has been erected. Its diameter inside is about 40 feet and the thickness of the wall about 20 feet. It has two large yellow doors. Why this purposeless structure was put up, nobody seems to know for certain. One gets a beautiful view from the top of the wall--Teheran in the distance on one side; the Shah-Abdul-Azim mosque on the other. Mountains are close by to the east, and a patch of cultivation and a garden all round down below. Near the mosque--as is the case with all pilgrimage places in Persia--we find a bazaar crammed with beggars, black bag-like women riding astride on donkeys or mules, depraved-looking men, and stolid-looking Mullahs. There were old men, blind men, lame men, deaf men, armless men, men with enormous tumours, others minus the nose or lower jaw--the result of cancer. Millions of flies were buzzing about.

One of the most ghastly deformities I have ever seen was a tumour under a Mullah's foot. It was an almost spherical tumour, some three inches in diameter, with skin drawn tight and shining over its surface. It had patches of red on the otherwise whitish-yellow skin, and gave the impression of the man resting his foot on an unripe water-melon with the toes half dug into the tumour.

Non-Mussulmans are, of course, forbidden to enter the mosque, so I had to be content with the outside view of it--nothing very grand--and must take my reader again along the flat, uninteresting country towards Kum.

The usual troubles of semi-civilised Persia are not lacking even at the very first stage. There are no relays of horses, and those just unharnessed are too tired to proceed. They are very hungry, too, and there is nothing for them to eat. Several hours are wasted, and Sadek employs them in cooking my dinner and also in giving exhibitions of his temper to the stable people. Then follow endless discussions at the top of their voices, in which I do not take part, for I am old and wise enough not to discuss anything with anybody.

The prospects of a backshish, the entreaties and prayers being of no avail, Sadek flies into a fury, rushes to the yard, seizes the horses and harness, gives the coachman a hammering (and the post master very nearly another), and so we are able to start peacefully again at three a.m., and leave Chah-herizek behind.

But the horses are tired and hungry. They drag and stumble along in a most tiresome manner. There is moonlight, that ought to add poetry to the scenery--but in Persia there is no poetry about anything. There are a great many caravans on the road--they all travel at night to save the animals from the great heat of the day--long strings of camels with their monotonous bells, and dozens of donkeys or mules, some with the covered double litters--the kerjawa. These kerjawas are comfortable enough for people not accustomed to ride, or for women who can sleep comfortably while in motion inside the small panier. The kerjawa is slung over the saddle like two large hampers with a roof of bent bands of wood. A cloth covering is made to turn the kerjawa into a small private room, an exact duplicate of which is slung on the opposite side of the saddle. Two persons balancing each other are required by this double arrangement, or one person on one side and an equivalent quantity of luggage on the other so as to establish a complete balance--a most important point to consider if serious accidents are to be avoided.

Every now and then the sleepy voice of a caravan man calls out "Salameleko" to my coachman, and "Salameleko" is duly answered back; otherwise we rattle along at the speed of about four miles an hour, bumping terribly on the uneven road, and the diligence creaking in a most perplexing manner.

At Hasanabad, the second stage, I was more fortunate and got four good horses in exchange for the tired ones. One of them was very fresh and positively refused to go with the others. The driver, who was brutal, used his stock-whip very freely, with the result that the horse smashed part of the harness and bolted. The other three, of course, did the same, and the coachman was not able to hold them. We travelled some few hundred yards off the road at a considerable speed and with terrible bumping, the shaky, patched-up carriage gradually beginning to crumble to pieces. The boards of the front part fell apart, owing to the violent oscillations of the roof, and the roof itself showed evident signs of an approaching collapse. We were going down a steep incline, and I cannot say that I felt particularly happy until the horses were got under control again. I feared that all my photographic plates and cameras might get damaged if the diligence turned over.

While the men mended the harness I had a look at the scenery. The formation of the country was curious. There were what at first appeared to be hundreds of small mounds like ant-hills--round topped and greyish, or in patches of light brown, with yellow sand deposits exposed to the air on the surface. On getting nearer they appeared to be long flat-topped ridges evidently formed by water-borne matter--probably at the epoch when this was the sea or lake bottom.

"Khup es!" (It is all right!) said the coachman, inviting me to mount again--and in a sudden outburst of exuberant affection he embraced the naughty horse and kissed him fondly on the nose. The animal reciprocated the coachman's compliment by promptly kicking the front splashboard of the carriage to smithereens.

We crossed a bridge. To the east the water-level mark, made when this valley was under water, is plainly visible on the strata of gravel with reddish mud above, of which the hills are formed.

Then, rising gradually, the diligence goes over a low pass and along a flat plateau separating the first basin we have left behind from a second, more extensive, of similar formation. The hills in this second basin appear lower. To the S.S.E. is a horseshoe-shaped sand dune, much higher than anything we had so far encountered, and beyond it a range of mountains. Salt can be seen mixed with the pale-brownish mud of the soil.

Then we drive across a third basin, large and flat, with the scattered hills getting lower and seemingly worn by the action of weather. They are not so corrugated by water-formed channels as the previous ones we had passed. Twenty feet or so below the summit of the hills a white sediment of salt showed itself plainly.

The fourth basin is at a higher level than the others--some 100 feet or so above the third--and is absolutely flat, with dark, gravelly soil.

Azizawad village has no special attraction beyond the protecting wall that encloses it--like all villages of Persia--and the domed roofs of houses to which one begins to get reconciled. Next to it is the very handsome fruit garden of Khale-es-Sultan.

At Khale Mandelha the horses are changed. The road becomes very undulating, with continuous ups and downs, and occasional steep ascents and descents. Glimpses of the large salt lake, Daria-i-Nimak, or the Masileh, as it is also called, are obtained, and eventually we had quite a pretty view with high blue mountains in the background and rocky black mounds between the spectator and the silvery sheet of water.

Aliabad has a large caravanserai with a red-columned portico to the east; also a special place for the Sadrazam, the Prime Minister, when travelling on this road; a garden with a few sickly trees, and that is all.

On leaving the caravanserai one skirts the mountain side to the west, and goes up it to the horse station situated in a most desolate spot. From this point one gets a bird's-eye view of the whole lake. Its waters, owing to evaporation, seem to withdraw, leaving a white sediment of salt along the edge. The road from the Khafe-khana runs now in a perfectly straight line S.W., and, with the exception of the first short incline, is afterwards quite flat, passing along and very little above the lake shore, from which the road is about one mile distant. The lake is to the S.E. of the road at this point. To the S.W., W., N.W., N., lies a long row of dark-brown hills which circle round the valley we are about to cross.

The sunset on that particular night was one in which an amateur painter would have revelled. A dirty-brown foreground as flat as a billiard-table--a sharp cutting edge of blue hill-tops against a bilious lemon-yellow sky blending into a ghastly cinabrese red, which gradually vanished into a sort of lead blue. There are few countries where the sun appears and disappears above and from the earth's surface with less glow than in Persia. Of course, the lack of moisture in the atmosphere largely accounts for this. During the several months I was in the country--though for all I know this may have been my misfortune only--I never saw more than half a dozen sunsets that were really worth intense admiration, and these were not in Western Persia. The usual sunsets are effects of a washed-out sort, with no force and no beautiful contrasts of lights and colours such as one sees in Egypt, in Morocco, in Spain, Italy, or even, with some amount of toning down, in our little England.

The twilight in Persia is extremely short.